The river and the rocks: The geologic story of Great Falls and the Potomac River Gorge

Bulletin 1471
By: , and 



The Great Falls of the Potomac River has figured prominently in the purposes of men since prehistoric time. Long before John Smith reached the falls in 1609, groups of Indians from East and West met at this great river barrier to trade and perform ceremonies in honor of the spirit of the "Roaring Waters". As early as 1754, George Washington visualized the Potomac River as an important avenue of trade and communication with the interior.

Records show that with the exception of Mount Vernon, Great Falls was perhaps as intimately associated with George Washington's everyday life as any other place in the country. As first President of the "Patowmack Canal Company," Washington frequently visited the working parties as they constructed the canal and lock system which skirted the treacherous falls on the Virginia side. Matildaville, a town of about 40 acres named after the wife of "Light Horse" Harry Lee and consisting of various dwellings, grist mill, market house, forge, sawmill, and tavern, sprang up along the banks of the canal.

In 1802, the Patowmack Company canals were essentially completed, and hundreds of boats plied the river, bringing corn and wheat, coal and limestone, flaxseed and furs downstream from the mountainous region of Cumberland. Many of the boats were sold for lumber in Georgetown, thus sparing the boatmen an arduous upstream journey.

After the establishment of the Nation's Capital, Great Falls became a popular scenic attraction for residents and visitors alike. But Great Falls was not always so easily accessible as it is today. In 1845, a newspaper columnist, after praising the beauty and historic interest of the region, added, "... the access to this interesting spot is, on both sides of the river, by the most infamous of roads and the accommodations for visitors anything but what they ought to be!"

Visitors to Great Falls now number close to a half million annually and, because of this continuing and mounting interest, the U.S. Geological Survey has joined with the National Park Service in preparing this booklet for better understanding and enjoyment of the Great Falls of the Potomac River.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title The river and the rocks: The geologic story of Great Falls and the Potomac River Gorge
Series title Bulletin
Series number 1471
DOI 10.3133/b1471
Year Published 1980
Language English
Publisher U.S. Government Printing Office
Publisher location Washington, DC
Description vii, 75 p.
Country United States
State Maryland, Virginia
Other Geospatial Great Falls of the Potomac River
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details